The Justice and Peace Commission makes the case against trial by ordeal

By Thomas B. Mawolo

If a stranger comes to visit us in southeastern Liberia and asks whether people here practice sassywood, we are inclined to answer “yes.” Traditional justice is widespread and deep-rooted in the people. This method is being described as a harmful traditional practice because it is causing problems in some rural communities.

Villagers say that sassywood helps to control horrific behavior. According to one elder of one town, “An attempt to put a stop to ordeal/sassywood is clearly an indication of destroying our heritage. Anyone who violates the laws or customs of the town should be held liable and face punishment in keeping with our tradition.”

But the act of administering sassywood to an accused person is not transparent. For example, if a woman refuses to lie in bed with the chief and later is accused falsely for theft, the investigation will certainly be partial so long as the chief is the head of the committee.

We have come to the understanding that the practice conflicts with the Constitution. Article 2 states that any laws found to be inconsistent with the Constitution shall be void and of no legal effect. Under Liberian law, the burden of providing evidence against a suspect is on the accuser, not the accused. Sassywood puts the burden of producing proof on the accused.Furthermore, the Constitution provides that a person accused of a crime “shall not be compelled to furnish evidence against himself.”To conclude, the community and other stakeholders should now put into place a realistic approach to end the administration of sassywood, and start the campaign to create awareness to stop it. We can only make a positive impact when all of us change our attitudes toward our individual beliefs and help make Liberia a civilized state.

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